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Turtles Need Protected Sea Lanes, Conservationists Urge


Photo courtesy NOAA

Leatherback sea turtles and sharks need protection from industrial fisheries by identifying and creating marine protected areas along the Pacific leatherback’s migratory routes, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) World Conservation Congress resolved.

More than 8,000 scientists, government officials and environmental organizations from 250 nations gathered at the IUCN congress overwhelmingly supported the resolution, designed to shield the critically endangered Pacific leatherback and the hammerhead shark from longline and gillnet fisheries.


“Our plan allows one of the largest reptiles on Earth to continue its 100-million-year-old existence by opening and closing portions of the migration corridor to fishing as turtles enter and exit the area,” said Randall Arauz, president of PRETOMA, a Costa Rica-based conservation charity that sponsored the resolution. “We believe this corridor is also used by other endangered species, such as hammerhead sharks, and would benefit many other threatened marine species.”

Photo courtesy NOAA

The resolution drew from the scientific recommendations based upon fieldwork and analysis by Stanford University researcher George Shillinger and others who believe their work may make adaptive closures of fisheries a realistic conservation approach.

leatherback-5.jpg“It’s time to turn the high-tech science into political will and conservation action for critically endangered leatherbacks,” Shillinger said.

Satellite tracking data from the Stanford project shows that after nesting on the beaches in Playa Grande, Costa Rica, Pacific leatherbacks swim toward the Galapagos Islands.

Shillinger used data from the satellite tracking and remote sensing to describe the effects of ocean currents, phytoplankton distribution and sea-floor topography on leatherbacks’ distribution and movement; and then developed a model that could predict the presence or absence of the sea turtles.

Photo by George Shillinger/Stanford News Service

The scientists believe their models would identify areas of highest risk of turtle interaction with fisheries and provide governments and fisheries with the opportunity to protect leatherbacks as they move through their annual migrations.


Their work was published in a paper, Persistent Leatherback Turtle Migrations Present Opportunities for Conservation, in the journal PLOS Biology in July. The map above, published as part of the paper, shows how dozens of leatherbacks were tracked.

Stanford’s project is part of the Census of Marine Life’s (CoML) Tagging of Pacific Pelagics (TOPP) initiative, a multidisciplinary, international research program utilizing electronic tags to track the migrations of a variety of open ocean animals.

leatherback card.png

“Leatherback sea turtles survived the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs, but they are unlikely to survive our unsustainable appetite for swordfish and tuna,” said Todd Steiner, executive director of the U.S.-based Turtle Island Restoration Network and a member of the IUCN Marine Turtle Specialist Group. “If leatherbacks are to survive the coming decades, we must convert talk to action; otherwise we will lose one of the most ancient creatures on the planet, in the next ten to thirty years.”

Leatherback sea turtles in the Pacific Ocean have declined by more than 90 percent over the past three decades as a result of drowning in industrial longline and gillnet fisheries targeting swordfish, sharks, and tunas.

Egg harvesting, marine plastic debris and loss of nesting beaches due to global warming-induced sea level rise also threaten the leatherback.

If current trends continue, conservationists predict, Pacific leatherbacks will go extinct within decades.leatherback-2.jpg

Photo courtesy NOAA

Additional information:

Leatherback Sea Turtle (National Geographic)

Leatherback Turtle (NOAA)

Leatherback turtles’ route may offer roadmap to salvation (Stanford News Service)

George Shillinger’s Blog

Census of Marine Life

Related National Geographic News stories:

Rare Leatherback Turtles Gain Protection in Costa Rica

Global Warming Forces Innovative Sea Turtle Protection

Endangered Turtle Makes Record 647-Day Journey

Leatherback Sea Turtle Mating Filmed for First Time

Watch a National Geographic News video about Leatherback protection efforts in Costa Rica: 

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Producer/Videographer: Stefan Lovgren; Additional video: Alexander Gaos; Jane Stevens/TOPP.org


A baby leatherback turtle crawls toward the sea on Playa Grande beach in Costa Rica in this undated photo. After millions of years on Earth, will this animal be able to continue its extraordinary journey for much longer? The answer to that question will depend on whether we are able to find the will and a way to share the ocean with them.

Photograph by Steve Winter/NGS